UO's Freeman embraces change
EUGENE — Donte Pimpleton didn’t know what to expect from Royce Freeman.
Oregon’s new running backs coach was unsure if he would get one season with the school’s second 4,000-yard rusher. Then when Freeman did return for his senior season, Pimpleton wondered if he could teach the old back new tricks.
“You’d think if you are going to have a guy like that with his success and the things he’s accomplished and is going to accomplish, it would be kind of tough to deal with,” Pimpleton said. “But Royce is probably the smartest player I have ever coached. He asks a lot of questions, he wants to learn. He’s not a know-it-all type. He wants to get better every day, asking ‘Coach, what can I do about this? How is this?’ He’s great.”
Freeman was considered likely to leave Oregon following his junior season until injuries last year limited his effectiveness and dropped his draft stock. He is ranked as the No. 8 running back in the 2018 NFL Draft by ESPN’s Todd McShay.
Once Mark Helfrich was fired, Gary Campbell was gone after 34 years of coaching the school’s running backs. Willie Taggart arrived and brought Pimpleton with him from South Florida after the Bulls ranked fifth in the nation with 285.3 rushing yards a game last season.
“I just took it as a new opportunity to learn,” Freeman said. “I wouldn’t have come back if I wasn’t open to things like that. A different coach with a different style, he had a lot of things he could teach me. I came in with an open mind as a student.”
Freeman has run for 4,146 yards in three seasons to close in on LaMichael James’ school record of 5,082.
“That would be an honor, something I would relish for the rest of my career, but I can’t get too far ahead of myself,” he said. “Statistical goals or records, I can’t think about those things at this point.”
Freeman ranks seventh in school history with 4,796 total yards, fourth with 282 points and third with 47 touchdowns, putting him on pace to break each of those marks as well.
As a true freshman, he ran for 1,365 yards and 18 scores while helping lead Oregon to the College Football Playoff. He followed with a single-season school record of 1,836 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore when he averaged 141.2 yards per game.
Freeman suffered a shin injury last year in the third game at Nebraska and missed the following week against Colorado. He also had an injury to his sternum and was held to 50 yards or less during four straight games in the middle of the season, including 10 on 15 carries in a loss at California.
“If he’s healthy, we can see the Royce we all know, the one that came on the scene as a freshman,” Taggart said. “It would be great to see him leave the same way he came in. I think that is his expectation and ours too.”
With Oregon’s depth on the offensive line and inexperience at receiver, the Ducks are expected to lean on the running game led by Freeman, Tony Brooks-James and Kani Benoit.
Freeman will likely be counted on for the 20 carries he averaged during his first two seasons before getting 15 attempts per game last year.
“The ground game has always been a strong point of Oregon football and I don’t see that being any different,” Taggart said. “If you look at winning football teams, especially championship teams, they do a great job of running the football. I don’t think you will see much different from that standpoint. We’ve got some really good backs and a good offensive line so we have to utilize those guys.”
Taggart said the 6-foot, 238-pound Freeman has looked faster this fall than he did in the spring.
“It is cool to have a big, strong guy who can run someone over, but also run away from people too,” said Taggart, who has compared Freeman to Toby Gerhart, the Heisman Trophy runner-up for Stanford in 2009 when Taggart coached its running backs.
During his two seasons at South Florida, Pimpleton tutored Marlon Mack, the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,609 yards in three seasons. The 5-foot-11, 213-pounder turned pro after his junior season and was picked in the fourth round by Indianapolis.
“Totally different backs,” Pimpleton said. “Royce is more complete, there is nothing he can’t do. He can block, run, catch, do it all. Marlon was more of a slasher who could hit it and get it. Both are great backs, but Royce is more complete with that size. Royce is the real deal.”
Pimpleton didn’t want to change much about Freeman’s style in their lone season together, so he focused on mental and visual work.
“A lot of it is teaching him the game, fronts and how things work in the big picture,” Pimpleton explained. “For him to see things at a different level so he can anticipate what is coming instead of just reacting. If he can see it and know how things are going to go, that’s big for him.”
Pimpleton played with Taggart at Western Kentucky and has been on his staff at WKU, South Florida and Oregon.
“Donte really understands the game,” Taggart said.
“He understands line play and blocking. You’d be amazed how many college kids don’t understand those things. I think that really helps Royce. I see a difference in him where you can tell he understands what the offensive line is about to do and who is supposed to block and he does a great job setting up those blocks. Dante does a great job with all those backs making them understand that. He is not just saying ‘Get the ball and run this way’, but here is who they are going to block and here is how we should run the play and then expect them to do that every single time.”
Having already earned his degree at Oregon, Freeman has welcomed a new teacher for his final football season with the Ducks as he looks to set himself up for a pro career.
“The ins and outs Coach P can give me will make me a better back,” Freeman said. “It didn’t take long to get used to. He’s easy to warm up to and he got to know us on a personal level. He’s watched a lot of guys in the NFL now so he’s trying to help us advance and be more like them.”
That’s the attitude Pimpleton hoped he’d get from Freeman.
“If I coach another one like him, I’m lucky,” he said.